A SmallSat/MicroSat Drama Unfolding Above The Earth


It seems there’s a potential setback for the Maker satellite movement above our heads:  the Kicksat cube satellite is experiencing difficulties.  According to a May 3 update on Kicksat’s website, the Kicksat’s watchdog timer experienced a hard reset.  The watchdog timer is a sort of failsafe all satellites have on-board.  It’s meant to protect the spacecraft and get critical systems of the satellite’s “bus” (go here to learn more about the bus) on-line without needing external commands.

Unfortunately for Kicksat, the timer also reset the master clock, which means all 104 of the much smaller “sprite” satellites it was supposed to deploy this week, won’t.  They will now deploy on 16 May–which is a problem.  Kicksat believe their satellite will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up prior to the 16th.  It’s not the most expensive “fireworks” display to ever happen above the Earth, but it’s a little disheartening.

Most satellites have a communications link with the ground, to verify resets, send new commands, etc.  Kicksat also has this, however the “uplink radio” (the radio to receive commands) on the satellite requires a certain amount of power–and there isn’t enough for it to power on right now.  Kicksat’s founder seems to think there’s a possibility of a power build-up to power the receiver before Kicksat reentry.  That might be the best bet.

There are some unknowns with this that Kicksat is wrestling with.  But it’s all a part of learning.  And what Kicksat just learned is sometimes radiation, which is what they suspect triggered the reset, can be unhelpful during satellite operations.  What Kicksat is experiencing is a small part of what satellite operators have dealt with for years.  It sounds like what occurred is similar to a single event upset (SEU) affecting the watchdog timer.  But the beauty of Kicksat is the satellite very inexpensive–especially the sprites.  This means they could try this again, but this time using what they learned to create a robust communications link.  Or to perhaps not link the clock reset to a watchdog timer reset.

Of course, something else will go wrong…but they will overcome that, too.

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